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Counselors are key to fixing discipline problems, Hillsborough school leaders say

Published Feb. 21, 2015

TAMPA — Nearly a dozen Hillsborough County school administrators were invited Friday to give their feedback on the district's problems with student discipline.

But first they took time to vent.

Don't believe kids are getting the guidance they need from adults at the schools — including counselors, who spend much of their time administering tests — they told a district task force addressing discipline issues.

"We don't have the resources, and the resources are teachers, and teachers cost money," said Jacqueline Haynes, a district principal coach who was promoted this week from her job as principal of Blake High School.

The principals and assistant principals spoke candidly about weaknesses in the system that contribute to students feeling alienated and becoming disruptive.

Rashad Woods, assistant principal at Brandon High School, said there are not nearly enough opportunities for kids who want to learn job skills instead of continuing on to college. Years ago, schools worked to turn out productive individuals, he said. Now, "we are producing test takers."

Otis Kitchen, assistant principal at Forest Hills Elementary School, described a lack of understanding between children and the adults who teach them. "The cultural awareness piece is missing," he said.

Many in the group pointed to a shortage of counselors, who, though few in number, spend much of their time on noncounseling duties. The ratio ranges from 300 to 500 students per counselor, numbers that district leaders have defended in recent years. And while officials said the noncounseling duties would be reduced this year with the creation of student success teams, the principals said they are still frustrated by the demands placed on all their staffers.

"They give and they give, and there's just not enough of them to get the job done," said Jennifer McCrystal, principal of Bryan Elementary School in Plant City.

The demands, aggravated by educational mandates such as the rigorous Florida Standards, are pieces of a complex puzzle that members of the task force are confronting as they try to erase disparity in discipline between black and white students.

One tool the members are considering is a student bill of rights that would make sure children are aware that they can call on a parent or other advocate if they get in trouble at school.

The task force also wants to reduce the number of zero-tolerance offenses that lead to arrests.

But talk at Friday's meeting, both in their conversation with principals and in a later session with teachers, invariably turned to the demands on staff.

"If Johnny Walker is acting up, I can't just send Johnny Walker down to the counselor because who knows?" said Tanya Batchelor-Judge, a reading teacher at Middleton High School. "The guidance counselor might be doing a program or the guidance counselor might be prepping for an assessment."

The task force plans to turn in its recommendations to district administration March 6. Then it will become a community-based advisory council for the district.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.